Donnerstag, 11. Dezember 2014

Melancholia and Ukrainian National Identity

I this paper I will argue that the crisis of the Ukrainian national identity (including unfinished processes of decolonization and decommunisation) is partially connected to the presence of the melancholic elements in the Ukrainian identity discourse. I will start with the theoretical propositions derived from Freud's theory of mourning and melancholia, as well as its later reworkings within various theoretical frameworks. Next, I will distill the elements of melancholia within Ukrainian popular and academic discourses, and point out the problems that melancholic identity might be causing and propose a possible solution.

Melancholia and Social Identity: Theoretical Propositions

In Mourning and Melancholia (1917) Freud put forward a theory of how an individual copes with loss. Both mourning and melancholia are the states triggered by loss, e.g. by the death of a loved one or by “the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” (ibid, 243) The normal process of mourning, when it does not resolve itself through time, can turn into “pathological” melancholia, in which the loss becomes internalized. This results in “a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches...” and in “impoverishment of [the] ego on a grand scale (ibid, 244-245). Furthermore, the loss in melancholia is of a “more ideal kind”, the lost object is almost always elusive, “withdrawn from consciousness.”

However, melancholia is not only an phenomenon of an individual psyche, since Freud it has been taken up and applied to the study of social identities by a number of thinkers. For example, Alexander and Margarete Mitcherlich analyzed Germany's failure to confront the Nazi past and suggested that working through melancholia was necessary for “inventing a society that remembers, rather than unconsciously repeats, a murderous and authoritarian past.” (cited in Biesecker 2007, 148) So, the theorists writing on social melancholia in the 1970s and 1980s derived from Freud not only a theory of collective loss, but, most importantly, the theories of its practical overcoming. The 1990s witnessed a theoretical reversal, specifically within feminist/gender and post-colonial studies, which no longer viewed melancholia as a pathology but as an empowering act of resistance to hegemonic identities potentially leading to the (re)construction of identity of the oppressed (e.g. Butler 1997). Such stance, in its turn, received a critical response from the theories informed by the Lacanian psychoanalysis, structured around the notion of the lack. The response of Slavoj Zizek appears to be of the most interest for the discussion of 2 national identities. In Melancholy and the Act he writes:

The melancholic is guilty of committing a kind of paralogism of the pure capacity to desire, which resides in the confusion between loss and lack: insofar as the object-cause of desire is originally, in a constitutive way, lacking, melancholy interprets this lack as a loss, as if the lacking object was once possessed and then lost. In short, what melancholy obfuscates is that the object is lacking from the very beginning, ... that this object is nothing but the positivization of a void or lack... (Zizek 2000, 650-660, my emphasis)
So, Zizek suggests that in a case of melancholy an object of group desire is absent and actually has never been present in the first place, but it is believed to be lost. This translation of lack into loss and subsequent unconditional fixation on it enables a melancholic subject to assert her possession of the object, which cannot be possessed otherwise, in reality. In a way, the lost object is imaginary or even mythic; it functions as an ideological fantasy that covers up constitutive absence or rupture. So, when post-colonial and gender theories propagate melancholic attachment to the roots as an act of anti-hegemonic resistance, they might be in fact encouraging various fantasies and myths that are not just ineffective, but actually are destructive to the initial cause of construction of the new, non-oppressive identities. Moreover, if melancholy is not treated “properly” it can settle down as “perennial mourning” (Volkan 2007, 98) or regress into “national depression” (Kristeva in Haigh 2006).

Now, let us take these theoretical premises and use them as the tools for the analysis of the crisis of the Ukrainian national identity in the post-independence period. Such approach is beneficial since it allows to critically analyze public discourse (i.e. state, academic and popular) and to uncover its problematic assumptions that might not be fully conscious yet, but nevertheless can be brought to consciousness. Thus my intent lies in exposing the “positive unconscious” of the Ukrainian national identity.

- Melancholia and the Ukrainian National Identity (Inna Viriasova,, 2005)